In a previous post, I described how the case-marking of the direct object in Kashmiri depends on the person of the subject and the object. This means that in order to determine case on the object, we have to know the result of agreement between the subject and the verb, as well as the agreement between the object and the verb.

In this post, we explore a different kind of interaction between agreement and case-marking. Rather than agreement determining case-marking, we are going to look at the effects of case-marking on agreement, in a few languages that are relatives of Kashmiri, namely Hindi and Nepali.

These are so-called “split ergative” languages: if you’ve been following this blog, you’re all familiar with the term ergativity, but here’s a little recap anyway. In accusative case systems, like English, the object of a transitive clause is case-marked. In (1), the object appears in what we can call object case (them rather than they). The subject is in subject case, whether there is an object or not.

(1) a. She sees.
    b. She sees them.

In *ergative* languages, it is the subject that gets case-marking, and not the object. In ergative fake-English, (1) would be as in (1′), where the *object* in (1’b) is in the same case as the subject in (1’a), and the subject in (1’b) gets another case.

(1') Ergative fake-English
     a. She sees.
     b. Them sees she.

In split ergative languages, like Hindi and Nepali (and Kashmiri), only some constructions are ergative: when the verb is in the perfective aspect (roughly, indicating a completed action), the clause is ergative. When the verb is imperfective, the clause is accusative. This is shown in the following Hindi examples.

(2) Hindi
    a. Rahul   kitaab    paṛh-taa          thaa.
       R.MASC  book.FEM  read-hab.MASC.SG  be.MASC.SG
       ‘Rahul used to read a/the book.’
    b. Rahul-ne  kitaab    paṛh-ii   thii.
       R-ERG     book.FEM  read-FEM  be.FEM.SG
       ‘Rahul had read the book.’    (Bhatt 2005: 759)

So far, so cool. Let’s have a closer look at these examples, now. The ergative case-marker in Hindi is -ne, which we see in (2b). We can also see that the object is not case-marked in either sentence.

We can also check what the verb does: in Hindi, verbs can agree with arguments in person, number and gender. The glosses of (2) shows us that in (2a), the verb agrees with the masculine subject, while in (2b), it agrees with the feminine object. How come? The difference seems to be that the subject is case-marked in (2b), but not in (2a). Can we test for this? You bet we can!

(3) Hindi
    Mona-ne       is    kitaab-ko     paṛh-aa.
    Mona.FEM-ERG  this  book.FEM-ACC  read-MASC.SG
    ‘Mona had read this book.’        (Bhatt 2005: 768)

In (3), both the subject and the object are case-marked and both are feminine. So what happens with the verb? It shows masculine agreement! This kind of agreement arises as a default, when the verb does not know what else to agree with because all arguments have case-marking!

To summarise: it looks like the verb in Hindi agrees with arguments that do not have case-marking, and otherwise shows third person singular masculine agreement.

The closely related language Nepali shows a similar pattern, but differs in a very interesting way. Look at the examples in (4):

(4) Nepali
    a. ma       yas   pasal-mā  patrikā    kin-ch-u.
       1SG.NOM  this  store-IN  newspaper  buy-NONPAST-1SG
       ‘I buy the newspaper in this store.’
    b. maile    yas   pasal-mā patrikā    kin-ẽ.
       1SG.ERG  this  store-IN newspaper  buy-PAST.1SG
       ‘I bought the newspaper in this store.’
       (Bickel & Yādava 2000: 348)

Case-marking is similar to Hindi: in (4a), the subject is unmarked and in (4b), the subject has ergative case. This difference, as in Hindi, is tense and aspect. What happens with agreement? The verb agrees with the subject in both examples, independently of its case-marking! In this sense, Nepali and Hindi differ: in Nepali, the verb can agree with ergative subjects, but in Hindi it cannot.

One way of characterising this difference is to say that Nepali and Hindi differ in their agreement alignment. Both languages have (split) ergative case-marking (or alignment): the transitive subject gets case-marking.

In Hindi, the verb agrees with the subject in intransitive clauses, and with the (unmarked) object in transitive clauses (because of the subject’s case). We can call this ergative agreement alignment.

In Nepali, the verb agrees with the subject in both intransitives and transitives, independently of the subject’s ergative case. This agreement pattern resembles the English one shown in (1): the verb always agrees with the subject. We can call this accusative agreement alignment.

We can then group English, Hindi, and Nepali as follows: English has accusative case and agreement alignment, and Hindi has ergative case and agreement alignment. But Nepali mixes alignments: it has ergative case alignment, but accusative agreement alignment.

The attentive reader will notice that there could be another way of mixing alignments: accusative case alignment (like English), but ergative agreement alignment (like Hindi). As Bobaljik (2008) argues, however, no such language seems to exist! This means that languages don’t just randomly vary in their case and their agreement patterns, but that this variation is highly systematic.

Bobaljik also proposes a way to capture this. He suggests that agreement is always determined by case-marking, but that languages differ where they make the cut (e.g. Hindi doesn’t allow agreement with ergatives, but Nepali does). Bobaljik captures the general pattern by suggesting that agreement proceeds along a hierarchy:

(6) no case-marking > ergative/accusative case > dative case

Bobaljik’s generalisation is that if a language allows agreement with arguments on one level, it will also allow agreement with elements higher in (6). For Nepali, this means that if ergatives can agree, so can arguments without case-marking.

And now for the highlight! On the assumption that the verb checks the subject first and the object second (2), this generalisation derives the lack of languages with accusative case and ergative agreement alignment. Consider again (1), from English, repeated here. (1a) shows us that arguments with unmarked case can agree with the verb.

(1) a. She sees.
    b. She sees them.
    She see them.

For a language to be of the non-existing type, it would have to have case-marking like in (1), but agreement with the object, as in (1”). But since (6) suggests that subjects without case-marking must be able to agree, there is no way to skip the subject and agree with the object instead, as in (1”). So it is impossible to derive an accusative case-marking pattern and ergative agreement.

What is the moral of this story? Languages show all kinds of variation in their syntax, morphology and phonology, but the patterns shown here tell us that this variation is not without limits.


1. This does not necessarily mean that Hindi isn’t ergative after all — think of an English sentence like John likes Mary. Here, there is no case-marking either, but if we look at (1), we can tell that English does have object case. Similar reasoning holds for Hindi.

2. More technically, the idea is that there is a functional element, Tense, that is high in the syntactic structure, higher than both the subject and the object. It agrees downwards and finds the subject first — which can only be skipped if its case is opaque for agreement.


The main idea here, namely case-marking influencing agreement, is from Bobaljik (2008):

Bobaljik, Jonathan David (2008). ‘Where’s Phi?: Agreement as a Postsyntactic Operation’. In: Phi theory: Phi-Features across Modules and Interfaces. Ed. by Daniel Harbour, David Adger and Susana Béjar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 295–328.

The Hindi data are from Bhatt (2005):

Bhatt, Rajesh (2005). ‘Long Distance Agreement in Hindi-Urdu’. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 23.4, 757–807. doi: 10.1007/s11049-004-4136-0.

The Nepali data are from Bickel & Yādava (2000):

Bickel, Balthasar and Yogendra P. Yādava (2000). ‘A fresh look at grammatical relations in Indo-Aryan’. Lingua 110.5. doi: 10.1016/S0024-3841(99)00048-0.

Li (2007) explains some of the difficulties in classifying split ergativity:

Li, Chao (2007). ‘Split ergativity and split intransitivity in Nepali’. Lingua 117.8, 1462–1482. doi: 10.1016/j.lingua.2006.09.002.